I baked my first cake from scratch when I was nine years old: a simple cocoa cake, round, one-layer. I decorated it by throwing a handful of confectioners’ sugar on top, the powder landing sparse and uneven in spots, heavy like a snowdrift in others. It was beautiful, and tasted like spongy hot chocolate. From that moment on, standing triumphantly in my aunt Lauree’s small kitchen, I had a new hobby.
I found my sole domestic comfort early, unless brewing a perfect pot of tea counts. To this day, I would rather write and read than do anything else. Baking is my only life-long hobby, the one non-verbal art I have never ignored or repudiated altogether. My favourite time to bake is in winter, when the cold starts pushing through the walls of even the most solid structure. I meet Jack Frost head-on, with a hot oven and a swirl of sugar and spices at the ready.
I’m in the habit of reading as I bake. Consuming a few sentences of Hardy or Plath or Trollope whilst blending cake batter or folding in nuts and sultanas is appropriately meditative for this most serene of the creative arts. The uncontrollable frenzy of the holidays officially starts in America on Thursday. The next month will be a kaleidoscopic whirl of shopping, parties, and working with all of my settings broken, but one: overdrive. A few hours spent baking cookies, bars, brownies, and pies will preserve my nerves and restore my balance close to something I can call normal.
I am dedicating today, the 18th of November, this lovely calm before the holiday storm, to Proust and his madeleines. I was born on Marcel Proust’s birthday, 10th July. Today marks the 90th anniversary of his death. He was 51 years old, and left some of the most lyrical, evocative, and intensely beautiful writing in literature. All of that, and an unbreakable association with French tea-cakes called madeleines? Delicious.
Madeleines require very few ingredients, are easy and quick to make, and can be adapted to fit your whimsies. As they are shaped like shells, they require a special but inexpensive tray, but if you are ambitious you could try shaping them by hand!
- 3 eggs
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/3 cup milk
- 2 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 6 tablespoons butter, melted
- the zest of 1 lemon
Beat the first 3 ingredients plus half of the milk until thick. Fold in the flour and baking powder a little at a time; mix until smooth. Add in the rest of the milk and the butter. Mix until smooth. Add the lemon zest and stir lightly until it is incorporated.
Grease your madeleine tray. Spoon about 1 1/2 tablespoons of batter into each mold. Bake at 375 degrees F for 15 minutes. Cool on a rack. Yields 20-24 crusty, golden, yummy madeleines. Enjoy!
“I raised to my lips a spoonful of the cake…a shudder ran through my whole body and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.”-Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time